Anna Geary is evangelical about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. And if anybody embodies the concept of fitness, it is the 33-year-old Cork woman. The former camogie captain has 20 All-Ireland medals and is a founding member of the Women Gaelic Players Association.
She is passionate about encouraging girls’ participation in physical activity, and has just finished filming a documentary for RTÉ that looks at the reasons so many girls stop playing sport as they get older. She is a coach on RTÉ show Ireland’s Fittest Family, and mentored the winning families in 2016 and 2018.
But Anna is adamant that fitness is not the preserve of elite athletes or those into team sports, and she is on a mission to break down the stigma around exercise.
“If I lined up 10 people and asked them what exercise means to them, some will roll their eyes, some will think it is a form of punishment, some will think it is a way to work off overeating and guilt – a lot of people associate exercise with negative things,” she says. “Fundamentally, exercise is movement, movement for our bodies. Movement is going for a stroll along the canal with a coffee and your friend, but we only seem to view sweaty exercise as good. Any form of movement is good for our minds. We have to dispel the myths around exercise.”
Anna is also keen to break the link between fitness and physique.
“The problem is when it comes to fitness, and it is something that I have to check in with myself, is that we gear our goals around fitness and food to the aesthetic – we eat to look skinny, we eat to look toned, we exercise to be a lower body fat to fit into a smaller-size dress or to get back into our pre-pandemic jeans – it is never to feel good,” she says.
“But like food is a comfort, exercise should be a comfort too – it shouldn’t be something that you always feel you have to dread, or something that you know is going to be tough. It is about fitting it into your lifestyle, making you healthier and making you feel better.”
Social media has made this damaging connection between fitness and aesthetic even more virulent, as it has given us what Anna calls “comparison tools”.
“With social media you have the invitation into somebody else’s life. Someone that may have the body that you want. But it isn’t a realistic comparison. You don’t live in their circumstances. For example, you see some personal trainers on Instagram. They might train twice a day because they don’t have to go to a job as well – that is their job. And then you are feeling bad about yourself because you can’t do it and they can? Sure, they could be going for a nap during day!” she says.
“In the quest to make people healthier, the language and the approach that we have to fitness has turned more people off than it has inspired. Hashtags like fitfam and fitspo – most people think ‘I am never going to look like that so I am not even going to try’.”
The power of unrealistic expectations is such that even someone like Anna can fall foul. For this reason, she avoids a certain popular women’s fitness magazine.
“I would consider myself in great shape right now, but I have more body fat than I would like because, like everyone else, I have been cooped up for the last year and a half.
“And I have been unable to do the things that I would normally do. Like shopping – I could walk 10,000 steps shopping around the place no bother. And because of the things that I am eating – often out of boredom or because I am at home and I don’t have anything else and I can’t go to the restaurant and have the salad that I like. I am fit and I am strong and I am very healthy – but I wobble, and I have more body fat than I would like. So, if I picked up one of those magazines, I would think ‘Oh My God, I am so way off!’ But I am not.”
Anna herself has a significant social media presence. Her Instagram audience grew to 115,700 during the last year as she evolved from posting motivational content to exercise and workout videos.
“I recognised, thankfully, and I always have, that exercise makes me feel good. It mightn’t make me feel good when I am doing it, and sometimes you might not look forward to it, but my motivator was always that I knew I was going to feel marginally better after I exercise.
“But there were days I didn’t train, there were days I had pizza for lunch and maybe again for dinner and copious amounts of chocolate. That is often what we do, we use food as a crutch to comfort us, which, you know, there is a place and a time for.
“There are days when you have to listen to your body, and if I am tired rather than doing a high-intensity class I will go out for a walk, and that has to be enough.”
Being kind to yourself is one of the pillars to a fit summer, according to Anna, and she wants people to redefine how they measure their progress. To this end, she is advocating a complete avoidance of the weighing scales.
Weight, she says, is not a reliable indicator of anything: “It is something you can become obsessive with, and especially with women, our weight can fluctuate within the month. My weight can fluctuate by a good few pounds depending on what time of the month I am at, depending on how much water I drank over the past few days, depending on what time I finished my last meal, even the scales depending on where it is.
“There are so many variables with the weighing scales and if you are working hard and are proud with your progress, you are allowing a weighing scales to determine how you feel about that. It’s not about weight, it is about being fit. Being fit to me is an aura, it’s a sense of self, it is how you feel about yourself.
“Your weight does not define your self-worth. I remember years ago doing a medical and for my height, I was technically in the overweight category. At the time I was captain of Cork but because of my BMI I was in the overweight category. Now, if I had had a turbulent relationship with my weight, that could have caused me absolute havoc, it could have been a massive trigger.
“A fit summer has to encompass everything. What I always do, from a wellbeing point of view, starting every day I rate my wellbeing between one and 10. ‘How am I feeling today? What can I do today to bring that rating up by one – it could be drinking more water, getting out for a walk, going to bed earlier’.”
But what if you do have fat to lose and you would like to measure this side effect from your fit summer?
“I would really like people to ditch the measurements, because a fit summer is about how you feel. It is about building a healthy lifestyle to feel better. But if you are going to measure from a weight point of view, I think progress pictures are a very good thing to do. I have taken progress pictures in the past – in something quite fitted so I can see the outline of my body. Progress pictures to me are private. I would be worried about sharing progress pictures on social media because you have to remember that your before picture might be somebody’s goal weight.
But really, the best thing to measure is how you feel. ‘How do I feel about myself this week? What did I do really well this week?’ And then break it down into exercise, sleep, food. Because we often look at fitness and health as deprivation, as cutting things out, restricting.
“But maybe it is about adding things in – ‘I added in an extra walk, I added in more green vegetables, I added in an extra half-an hour’s sleep at night’ you know? And reminding yourself of that.
“But I think ditch the measurements. Because people are in quite a vulnerable place right now, after coming out of the pandemic.
“I would love that if everybody, during this, set themselves a tiny goal, and each week they had a little milestone that they had to hit. And that might start with buying a pair of runners for walking more during the summer, or if you are attempting to run, maybe it is starting to stretch before you run.
“Fit Summer is about moving. Moving as much as you can. It is about eating food that will nourish you and give you energy and, from a mindset point of view, it is about feeling a sense of achievement, whether you run a marathon or you successfully complete a kilometre.
“It is about giving people the tools to feel good. If you feel good you can tackle so much more than if you feel crap. If you feel good, your resilience will be tenfold. We are all striving to be a size, but it isn’t the size that makes us feel good. It is about how we see ourselves. Whether it is the food, the fitness, the mindset, it is about changing and redefining what fit is.”
Fit Summer, your four week programme for mind and body runs every Monday in Health&Living and independent.ie until June 21